Mouths to Feed: Playing Chicken

By Celia Barbour

A few weeks ago, I sat in on a class at the Culinary Institute of America. The students were midway through a section on meat fabrication — “fabrication” being a tidy little euphemism for butchery. (And a term that has always confused me, because doesn’t “fabricating” something usually mean putting it together? Which is not, you know, what you do with an animal carcass.)

Anyway, on one of the days I was there, the subject was chickens — how to cut them up, de-bone them, airline the breasts, French the legs. The wonderful teacher, Chef Thomas Schneller, asked the students why it might be important for a chef to learn these things, since, after all, slaughterhouses offer chickens pre-cut into all sorts of parts.

“It might be cheaper to do it yourself?” said one student.

Schneller nodded. “What else?”

“You might not be able to buy the exact cuts you want,” said another.

Again the teacher nodded … waited … looked around. “What else?”

I forced myself to stay quiet. This was difficult. These days, Facebook is full of good advice, including rainbow-enshrouded slogans reminding us that we should never stop learning. But what these pages never take into account is that most of us really do need to stop learning the way we did in middle school, which is the only way many of us know how to learn. Indeed, I am often disheartened to discover how little I’ve outgrown my eighth-grade self. Standing there in the chilly meat room that day, it was all I could do not to wave one hand in the air like Horshack (for those of you who remember Welcome Back, Kotter) and call out the answer.

chicken salad 1Which — as, yes, I happen to know — is this: You can’t buy a truly well-raised chicken already cut into parts. Raising chickens on pasture, moving them from meadow to meadow, feeding them supplemental grain (especially if it’s organic grain), slaughtering and cleaning these birds — all this stuff costs a farmer so much time, effort, and money that he generally has to sell his whole chickens for upwards of $5 a pound just to break even. If he parceled them into boneless, skinless bits, he’d have to charge twice as much, and who would pay that? Not me.

Having decided some time ago that one thing I could no longer eat in good conscience was factory-farmed meat, I have been reckoning with whole chickens ever since. “Reckoning,” however, does not mean Frenching, airlining, galantining, or any other such byzantine rituals.

I buy my chickens whole, and I cook them whole, and that’s that.

In winter, this means I roast them. In summer, I poach them, then use the meat for salads, sandwiches, tacos, and other things. Poaching a whole chicken is quite easy. You put the bird in a large pot filled with enough cold water to keep it completely submerged. You add an onion, some bay leaves, and, if you like, a few other things (herb sprigs, peppercorns, a carrot, some celery). Then you put the pot on the stove and turn on the heat.

The only trick is not to let it come to a full-on boil. When the water begins bubbling, adjust the heat so that the chicken cooks at a gentle simmer until it is done. How can you tell it’s done? You can wiggle the leg: If it feels loose in its socket, it’s cooked. Or you can jab a meat thermometer into the thigh; if it’s reached 165, bingo. Pull it out. (This usually takes no more than 40 minutes or so.)

Allow the chicken to cool for 20 minutes or so, then pull the meat off the carcass and refrigerate it.

You’ll soon discover that having a container of lovely poached chicken in your refrigerator makes you feel ready for anything. Or at least that you’ve left middle school behind for the time being and are ready to face summertime like a proper grown-up.

Asian Chicken Salad

The exact quantities of the vegetables don’t matter; adjust to suit your tastes. You can serve this salad with cold rice noodles or rice, or fold it into a wrap. If you don’t want to poach your own chicken, you can substitute the meat from a pre-roasted bird.

For the dressing

1/3 cup lime juice

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon brown sugar

¼ cup fish sauce

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 whole jalapeno, seeded and chopped

½ cup peanut oil, or other mild oil such as canola

salt and pepper to taste

For the salad

Meat from one whole poached chicken, shredded

½ Savoy cabbage, shredded

2 medium carrots, julienned

1 cup snow peas, sliced into ½-inch pieces

1 red or yellow pepper, thinly sliced

2 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced

1 handful each mint, basil, and cilantro, rough-chopped

  1. Place all the dressing ingredients in a blender and pulverize until smooth, about 10 seconds.
  2. Combine all the salad ingredients except the herbs in a large bowl. Add the dressing and toss to combine. Just before serving, mix in the herbs.

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